After tentatively dipping my toe in the cold English Channel, I have now taken the plunge and fully joined up with the ‘Arch Section’ of Brighton Swimming Club.
Yes, it is.
It really is.
But it’s a nice surprise to discover how much more there is to it than that.
For a start, there’s the small matter of the sea. It’s not just the temperature that makes the English Channel such an interesting opponent at this time of year. The sheer power of the waves is amazing, and has to be taken seriously.
Then there are the wonderful people. Our guides for this adventure are Brighton’s collection of hardy sea-swimmers who meet every morning on Brighton’s seafront at 7.00am. With years of swimming experience under their belts, they make superb and trusted companions, ever happy to offer advice on handling the day’s conditions. Hyper-keen senses assess the size of the waves, the state of the tide and the wind’s direction, deciding in a second how the sea should be approached.
Along with Nick and Tam, also recent converts, I am one of the youngest members of the club, at the tender age of 31. Most other members are in their 40s, 50s, 60s and even 70s. Since I joined I have been told of fond collective memories of a former club president who recently passed away at the age of 83, still an advocate of taking the waters of Brighton.
On mornings when the waves are big, concentration is required to ensure a safe entry into the waves. Speed is of the essence and the issue of the low temperature doesn’t occur until you’re safely way from the beach and treading water in the swell. After a few minutes of playing in waves, the time comes to plan your escape. Once again, the breaking waves don’t favour the sluggish, so when a gap in the waves is chosen, quick progress up Brighton’s stony beach is recommended. Only when the excitement of escape is over does it occur how painful the stones can be beneath icy cold feet.
Once back on dry land, we retreat into the Club’s eccentric clubhouse, beneath the arches of Brighton’s promenade. Conditions are basic and crowded, but warm showers, a kettle, and the camaraderie of fellow swimmers make it a wonderful cocoon from the outside world.
It seems only right. Brighton (or Brighthelmstone as it was) practically invented the very English practice of immersing oneself in icy seawater for the good of ones constitution. My new friends are continuing this fine tradition, to the eternal amusement of of local onlookers and journalists, who find the whole practice rather quaint and eccentric.
In reality, there’s no over-dramatic derring-do involved – just a healthy respect for the power of the ocean. The swimmers don’t consider themselves heroes or nutters; they just love starting the day the way they do. And it’s a privilege to be joining them.